SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California prosecutor filed 33 criminal charges Tuesday against troubled Pacific Gas & Electric for a 2019 wind-driven wildfire officials blamed on the utility, accusing it of injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash.
The company denied that it committed any crimes even as it accepted that its transmission line sparked the blaze.
The Sonoma County district attorney charged the utility with five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts in the October 2019 Kincade Fire north of San Francisco. The blaze burned more than 120 square miles (311 sq. km.) and destroyed 374 buildings.
The 33 charges include recklessly causing a fire that seriously injured six firefighters, named only as John Does #1-#6. Among the firefighters injured were a member of an inmate fire crew and at least two out-of-state contractors, one of whom suffered second- and third-degree burns to his legs and torso.
Fire officials said a PG&E transmission line sparked the fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee. It was the largest evacuation in the county’s history, prosecutors said, including the entire towns of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville.
The utility said it hadn’t seen the report or evidence gathered by state fire investigators, but it will accept the finding that its transmission line in the Geysers Geothermal Field northeast of Geyserville caused the fire “in the spirit of working to do what’s right for the victims.”
“However, we do not believe there was any crime here,” the company said in a statement. “We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system.”
It thanked firefighters, including those who were injured, and said it was grateful that no one died.
The company serves more than 16 million people across much of Northern California. PG&E Corporation Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe said in her own statement that she came to the company in January to “make it safe again in California. We will work around the clock until that is true for all people we are privileged to serve.”
The charges and related enhancements accuse the company of destroying inhabited structures and emitting air contaminants “with reckless disregard for the risk of great bodily injury” from toxic wildfire smoke and related particulate matter and ash, thereby endangering public health. Prosecutors said smoke brings an increased risk of stroke as well as serious respiratory problems, including worsening asthma in children.
They allege that the utility failed to maintain facilities including transmission lines, among the numerous related misdemeanor charges.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she and other investigators went to fire’s ignition site as soon as it was safe, and since then have been working with state and independent experts to determine the cause and responsibility for the blaze.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported to her office in July that the fire was sparked when a cable on a transmission tower broke in the high winds and caused an electrical arc when it touched the tower. That caused molten material to drop into the dry vegetation below and ignite a fire that was not fully contained for 15 days, she said.
In the months since then, her office did its own additional investigation that included interviews with dozens of witnesses, search warrants and reviewing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. Prosecutors also consulted with other law enforcement and regulatory agencies along with independent experts, she said.
“I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings,” she said in a statement.
It’s the latest in a series of similar problems for the utility.
PG&E’s alleged criminal negligence in the Sonoma County wildfire occurred while the company was still mired in a bankruptcy triggered by a series of deadly infernos that were ignited by the utility’s crumbling equipment during 2017 and 2018.
The most lethal in Butte County wiped out the entire town of Paradise in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history. It culminated in PG&E pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter last June.
Although PG&E’s then-chief executive Bill Johnson appeared in court to enter the guilty pleas before some of the surviving families of those killed in Butte County, no one from company went to prison. Instead, the company paid the maximum penalty of $4 million.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy protection shortly after those guilty pleas after negotiating a series of settlements to cover the damages caused by its fraying grid. Those settlements included a $13.5 billion fund for wildfire victims that recently started distributing some of the money to help people rebuild their lives.
The Sonoma County wildfire also raised the hackles of a federal judge overseeing PG&E’s ongoing criminal probation for a 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno, a suburb south of San Francisco.
U.S. District William Alsup, who has repeatedly lambasted PG&E for its shoddy maintenance of its equipment, is currently considering ordering proposed changes that could result in the utility being forced to turn off its power lines even more frequently than it has in recent years during dry and windy conditions to reduce the chances of causing more deadly fires.
Associated Press writer Michael Liedtke contributed from San Francisco.